Our dogs have lived their whole lives in an orchard. They are used to the sounds of the orchard, birds, falling fruit, the occasional work truck or fertilizer plane. But life here is pretty quiet and secluded. One reason we decided on Ridgebacks was for their protective instincts; they are naturally suspicious but not aggressive. They bark only when something is out of sorts.
Occasionally there are individuals working in the orchard and trucks that run up and down the road next to our house. The dogs always seem to know the difference between the sound of work trucks and the sound of our truck, and never fail to alert us to a strange truck. We have a great many of trails on which to walk the dogs off leash, which is good because only recently has Kaya become pleasant to walk on leash. She gave up her pulling forward ways about a year ago, now perfecting the backwards pull, earning her the nickname “the mule.” Yet even though we let the dogs frequently walk off leash, Kaya does not respond well to other commands, “come”, “heel”, “sit”…”leave it” etc, despite two training classes and years of working with her. She is the classic stubborn hound. Merle on the other hand is extremely responsive off leash, but on leash is a horrible puller. He always needs to be in the lead. After trying every walking device: an easy walk harness (both the body and nose versions), a pinch collar, a hunting collar, not much seems to work. Nevertheless, I have become more and more dedicated to fixing the training glitches in our dogs and this week my focus is on training Kaya on her commands. I purchased a 20ft training leash to practice her recall. I told myself I would dedicate an hour every day to training. So for 30 minutes this morning I worked with Kaya, who was hooked up to the deck by the leash and forced to come to me standing on the grass (her arch nemesis), treats in hand. She did great and her recall got better with each try. I figured this success warranted a good walk up the hill with the training leash.
Boy was I wrong.
On the way up the hill behind our house we ran into a work truck. I was surprised and so were the dogs (we usually hear them go by and opt to walk at other times). The dogs lunged forward toward the truck barking, and all I could see was Kaya pulling my left arm forward and feel, was my bum hitting the ground. A bit befuddled, we eventually safely got out of the way of the truck. I figured we were in the clear for the rest of the walk. We continued on, and I decided that when we reached the end of the trail we would do some off leash recall training again. This went great and Kaya actually responded the first time on many occasions. (Any Ridgie owner knows this is a true feat!). But I noticed halfway through the truck had returned and was parked halfway down the trail. I would have to leash up both dogs and try to make it back unscathed. When we reached the truck I made the dogs sit-stay to relax, which they did, but as soon as they spotted a worker in the distance they were off like a bat out of hell. All 200+ lbs were dragging me down the dirt hill. All the commands in the world couldn’t save me.
One scraped bum, three destroyed fingers on my right hand, and bruised ego, the dogs finally returned to me. I apologized profusely to the poor man who had rushed up into a tree to avoid the oncoming train that is my dogs and we rushed back to the house. In the end everyone was fine and sure enough the dogs crashed on their beds when we got back.
The main point is…this walk was a failure and it left me frustrated and thinking.
Every online source, every expert, even our old trainer used to always say, dogs with poor recall should be kept on a leash on walks until you can trust them. But Ridgebacks are sighthounds, and they are incredibly powerful dogs motivated by a strong prey/protective/chase drive. Honestly, I feel in this instance if the dogs were unleashed it would have been less harmful. The dogs wouldn’t get tangled in the leash. My body would be bruise free. They may have even responded quicker if they weren’t restrained. The question becomes, how do you train a dog to recall off leash, if all the treats and commands in the world can’t overcome their instincts?
Nevertheless, I am not giving up hope. I will revisit a treat recipe they seem to love and go armed with that next time.